south east 1520

The Cat Inn

West Hoathly, Sussex

For a tiny village, West Hoathly has a lot going on. Home to Gravetye Manor – an exquisite, country hotel (as to which, see this month’s Palate Cleanser) – and two old world pubs in the form of The Fox and The Cat Inn. The latter sits just off the village’s main drag and is a neat, unassuming hybrid of period architecture and functional extension.

Sardines starter

The Cat Inn has the appearance of being family-run. A matriarchal figure is clearly in charge and a team of much younger serving staff (daughters?) undertake the more laborious tasks. By contrast, the client base is distinctly mature. On a weekday lunchtime in a Sussex village, you do expect retirees to be at leisure. And they were out in force. I was, with the exception of people lunching with their parents, the youngest customer by about thirty years.

The décor is sympathetic and semi-rustic, befitting a characterful village pub. The flooring – original boards, stained and varnished – is particularly lovely. There is lots of natural light and a sense of airiness. The use of large, yet understated, art pieces lends an upmarket feel to the dining rooms.

On being seated, there was no delay in receiving my drink (a softie, owing to driving) – a welcome and efficient beginning to proceedings. The menu at The Cat Inn is truly one of “pub grub”, with occasional nods to exotica such as courgette flower, ricotta and lemon and an intriguing almond-crusted whole plaice with parmesan gnocchi. I knew that I could test the skill of their kitchen in ordering sardines on toast to start – an oily, fleshy fish that can be so rewarding, but which is easy to get wrong. The sardines arrived plump, with barely any odour and displaying a crispy skin. Their toast bed (probably sourdough) was charred sufficiently to hold the lashings of olive oil above it. Portion size, consistent with the usual pub experience, was generous without harming presentation – and so a successful starter course.

A steak and ale pie – surely a country inn staple – followed, simply served with mash and a handful of veg. The pie’s crust, rightly, was the fluffy, slighty brittle kind which, when flaked, could blow away on a breeze. The pastry flanks soaked up gravy to form a deeply satisfying texture and flavour combination. The Cat Inn’s kitchen, presided over by Chef Alex Jacquemin, had deftly reiterated a true classic.

One of The Cat Inn’s dining rooms

The dessert course proved to be the high point, suggesting a climb to the peak of the meal. A crème brûlée of rice pudding was unlike any sweet I’ve had. While delivered in the usual, puck-like cylinder of brûlée casing, the middle bore a near-dry, dense filling of intensely creamy rice. The rice filling held itself together while on the fork and yet, somehow, retained a glue of cooked cream without said cream running at all. And in that cream lay heavenly sweetness conferred by vanilla, cardamom and sugar. An accompaniment of sharp, sunset-coloured, blood orange sorbet worked perfectly. I relished every mouthful and lamented the empty plate I created in fewer moments than I’m proud of. The pudding instantly entered the number one spot on my list of 2018 desserts.

To my surprise, the bill was towards cheap, proving that there is nothing to dislike at The Cat Inn. If really searching for a gripe, it could be argued that there is no wow factor to be found. If you have visited good foodie pubs in the British countryside then The Cat Inn will probably not give you anything new. That said, the offering is so incredibly solid and lovable that a visit is recommended.

The Cat Inn
Food & Drink56
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North Lane
West Hoathly
West Sussex
RH19 4PP


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